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Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Man Who Kicked the Honeybees' Nest...

Of the six colonies I tried to overwinter only one remains, the others now just empty boxes taking up space: mildew-fouled, crypts of moldering carcasses. Year after year my discouragement with this bee business grows. I'm tempted to throw up my hands, run up the white flag, cry "uncle, uncle," but honeybees have been a part of my life for more than five decades. I can't imagine this property without them drifting to and fro about the place. It's a Zen thing, I, guess, or perhaps a tenuous alliance with Mother Nature who sends her winged messengers to announce the wakening spring. All I know is there's a place in my heart reserved for bees.They're good for the vegetable garden, certainly, but they're better for my soul.

When wintered over bees begin to feel the pull of the vernal equinox, they urge the queen to ramp up  production. As the earth tilts toward summer, the season of nectar, their little insect genomes know that strength is in numbers and numbers mean a surplus of stores to sustain them over the winter...for winter always comes. The beekeeper can assist the bees in their mission by feeding the hive a light sugar syrup, simulating a honey flow and thus stimulate the colony to increase its numbers.

There are two or three methods by which the beekeeper can monitor a colony's strength. The most obvious is breaking into the hive itself, checking the removable frames for brood and numbers of clinging attendants. Spring weather here in the Valley is fickle, so one must wait for a day of mild temperature to avoid chilling the vulnerable brood and larvae; "going into the bees," it's called. The invasive measure calls for the beekeeper to fire up the old smoke engine, suit and veil up, time consuming to the point that doing so takes longer than the inspection itself--unless, that is, one has a number of hives to inspect.

Or you can choose to be rude and a bit bold, as I like to do, and have the bees themselves conduct a show of force. For optimum performance the beekeeper waits until the spring evening cools when the flight of the field force has dwindled. Twilight time is best. (Airborne bees become crawlers in the dark.) Then you step to the hive entrance and give the bottom box two or three sound raps with your boot toe. In mere seconds a colony with a strong--even medium--population will pour from the entrance, quickly clog it, and mill about the face of the hive. At this point the prudent beekeeper steps back a few paces lest he be repaid for his rudeness by a host of irate insects, each armed and in defensive mode.

Nothing is more disappointing to me than after a tap-tap-tap, and a half minute's wait, only a few bees trickle out to investigate. In this era of beekeeping I call "post-varroa," the spring dwindle sadly seems to be the rule rather than the exception. As is my case this spring, I couldn't even coax a trickle from five of my wintered colonies.

Another simple method to check colony strength, less harassing than rapping on the bees' front door, is to interrupt briefly their access to the hive. Midday or early afternoon I step into the path of the returning bees for a minute or so. The bees, whose flight suddenly is in a holding pattern because a big mass of something not there a moment ago is now blocking their access, mill about confusedly. Then I quickly step to the side a pace or two and watch the thwarted bees resume their trip to deliver the goods. I'm delighted when a tsunami of bees, a sign of healthy colony strength, rush the entrance, anxious to deliver their goods.

The second method, a temporary inconvenience more than anything, is the kinder way of assessing a colony's strength. This I readily admit, yet I still can't seem to resist the temptation to give the bottom super a good, sound boot or two, step back watch the queen's guard rush out to see who comes knocking at our door.